By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2019 09:11PM
20 years of Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory
It’s entirely coincidental that the cover of the latest Prog magazine (issue 101) should feature the cover artwork from 1999’s Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater when I finally decide to blog about prog metal. The idea for the blog has been floating around for nearly four months, prompted by an influx of requests to review albums that are covered by the prog metal umbrella. Metropolis pt.2 was integral to my thought process, having been suggested to me back in April that it was a prime example of the sub-genre where Dream Theater had reached the apex of their creativity and inspiration, with a great depth in the song writing, some 14 years after they had originally formed and with two different personnel from those in the original line-up, one of whom was Jordan Rudess on keyboards, recording an album with the band for the first time. Evidently, the advice I received was both pertinent and accurate, otherwise why would there still be sufficient interest in the album for Dream Theater tour it in its entirety on its 20th anniversary and why would Prog devote so many pages to it?
Heavy rock, heavy metal or prog?
Going back further in time, along with most other commentators of the period I made a distinction between heavy rock, Deep Purple, for example, and music created by the progressive groups of prog’s golden era, though King Crimson, rightly or wrongly lumped into the prog camp, were hurtling towards their first interregnum with the clever but undeniably heavy material that surfaced on Red (1974), a polished production that should be heard in the context of their live performances over the preceding year, later to surface on USA (1975) and even more fully documented on The Road to Red (2013).
The distinction between the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), a term coined when punk and new wave were fading by Sounds’ Geoff Barton in May 1979 and prog acts subjected to scrutiny in an ever-more commercial musical environment, was even more pronounced. However, NWOBHM inherited some of the do-it-yourself punk ethos that also featured in the make-up of nascent neo-prog bands, marking a convergence in thinking, if not in style.
The birth of prog metal
Around the same time as neo-prog was becoming established in the UK, a US prog metal scene was developing where the influences featured metal bands, including examples from NWOBHM, along with the well-established Rush. Fates Warning formed in 1982 and released their first album Night on Bröcken in 1984; Majesty, which became Dream Theater, was formed in 1985; Shadow Gallery (as Sorcerer) formed in 1985; Crimson Glory, following two changes of name, released their eponymously-titled debut album in 1986 and the follow-up, Transcendence (1988) is regarded as a prog metal classic.
Prog underwent resurgence during the mid-90s, catalysed by this assimilation of the progressive ethos into metal. Away from the US, the Scandinavians melded their take on metal with analogue retro-keyboard sounds, creating dark, sometimes stark prog that acted as a soundtrack for the folklore of Norway and Sweden. Anekdoten’s debut Vemod (1993) has been accurately described as sounding like King Crimson had they not disbanded in 1974. Although predominantly instrumental and heavy, with copious doom-laden Mellotron, the lyrics stand out as intelligent and call to mind Richard Palmer-James. The melancholy feel is enhanced by the addition of cello; at times the guitar is like the angular playing of Steve Howe on Fragile and the bass style owes a heavy debt to John Wetton. Did the success of Vemod’s release provide the impetus to reform King Crimson as a double trio conformation in 1994, with its nod to the Red-era? If so, Fripp and co. still felt the need to test the water by releasing the VROOOM EP but as far as the fan-base was concerned, they were ready for any new material. This incarnation of Crimson picked up from where the 70’s Crimson left off, complex and heavy, aligning themselves with prevailing trends, an alignment that continued with the subsequent studio releases The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and The Power to Believe (2003) which get progressively darker (though there always moments of optimism), heavier and technical. On balance, I’d call Thrak (1994) heavy prog but by the time they reached the third Crimson interregnum they were almost certainly prog metal, devoid of symphonic prog flourishes.
ProgBlog and prog metal
I’ve just been reminded that Steven Wilson, in an interview a few years ago, decried a lack of variation in metal and its limited musical vocabulary, suggesting that over-familiarity with the sound of was reducing its power. Wilson’s words appeared before I had ever been asked to review any prog metal but I still had a general feeling, one that might open me up to accusations of musical snobbery, that prog metal had a tendency towards being metal with progressive flourishes bolted on and that it was all a bit same-y. Up to the point two years ago when I was asked to review Radiant Memory (2017) by Process of Illumination, an instrumental band from Texas, the closest I’d got to sitting down and attentively listening to prog metal was either Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet (2007) or Sign of the Crow (2016) by the David Cross Band. The former, I’d suggest, contains more of the perceived prog metal tropes whereas there’s a ‘metal edge’ that runs deep in the latter. Cross’ heavy credentials date back to his tenure in King Crimson where he was fighting to be heard over band mates who were increasingly moving into proto-prog metal territory. I also own three studio albums by Peruvians Flor de Loto: Imperio de Cristal (2011); Volver a nacer (2012); and Nuevo Mesias (2014), and the self-titled debut from Il Bacio della Medusa (2004) – all of which can be described as hard-edged prog, which is why I bought them, but which display inspiration from metal. My favourite from this cohort by some distance is Sign of the Crow.
Radiant Memory took me by surprise, but the absence of vocals made it easier to review. I wouldn’t really class the album as straightforward prog metal and, to be fair to the band, they accurately state that their music is ‘an ambitious blend of progressive rock, instrumental music and metal.’ Their playing is of a high standard and there’s a lot of variation on the album thanks to a good guitar/keyboards balance. I was also wrong-footed by The Last Cell, the stage name of Jean-Marc Perc. Perc began playing the guitar at age nine, culminating in a Music degree from university in Vienna. He combines interesting-interval djent and tasteful shredding, all carried out with outstanding technical dexterity. The five-track EP Nautilus (2018) and 2019’s Continental Drift may contain archetypal examples of shredding and djent styles but he also adds delicate picked acoustic guitar – the music is highly melodic and he’s not averse to incorporate jazz-phrasing, demonstrating an innate musicality.
There is an obvious stylistic spectrum even within prog metal, so despite my disdain for Opeth, I have to admit that Heritage (2011) is growing on me. Part of what Wilson, who mixed the album, described as a trilogy (the other components being the collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt resulting in Storm Corrosion (2012) and Wilson’s second solo album from 2011 Grace for Drowning), Heritage was Opeth’s first full departure from the band’s metal roots and dispensed with Åkerfeldt’s trademark death metal growl. His singing voice isn’t a million miles away from Ian Anderson’s during the classic Tull period and the compositions steer clear of frantic, technical playing and heavy distortion. Its appeal lies in its variation. The title-track opener is a pleasant acoustic piano but the album references all the sounds of classic 70s prog, with Mellotron, rewarding organ and plenty of electric piano. There are tricky time signatures, knotty guitar riffs and sensitive playing amongst the crunchy power chords. Should the album’s category be changed from prog metal to prog? It doesn’t really matter, though Slither, a tribute to Ronnie James Dio who died during the time the record was being made, is probably the least interesting track as it’s like a race, with little development until an acoustic guitar passage which lasts until the fade.
Dream Theater define prog metal
So was Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory a ground-breaking moment for prog metal, and do I like it? For someone listening to the record for the first time, 20 years on from its release makes it difficult to ascribe how innovative it was. By 1999 ‘prog’ and ‘progressive rock’ had begun to attract less invective - Radiohead released OK Computer in 1997 and while everyone seemed to accept it was brilliant and pushed boundaries, the band themselves denied it but the public began to use the p-word and Radiohead in the same sentence. Metropolis pt.2 certainly doesn’t conform to my idea of metal and there are a number of aspects that have been borrowed from prog. The opening section with the hypnotherapist is pure Roger Waters and the album is replete with Floyd-like sound effects inter-track segues. If prog had remained a dirty word, it’s unlikely that the storyline, shifting between different events through time and marked out by lyrics denoted in different fonts, would have been so readily accepted. I’m not a great fan of LaBrie’s vocals which I find occasionally shaky and certainly no better than average which is a shame, because they are essential to the story-telling, and I do find the lyrics a little trite. On the other hand, it’s impossible to criticise the musicianship and there’s a sublime section that reminds me of Zappa’s Hot Rats. There’s a delightful ‘throw everything at it’ approach that conforms to prog stereotypes, meaning that if this was to be the gold-standard or the epitome of prog metal, I’d probably go along with it.
I believe it’s predominantly the links to metal that have allowed the prog genre to thrive and though there are obviously other musical forms that continue to impact and shape progressive music, the blurring of distinction between aspects of prog and metal, whether or not originality has been compromised, has facilitated the integration of metal into the prog genre. For my part I recognise the importance of this association, and at the level of listener I can appreciate the technicality involved in the playing.
Even though I think there’s very little that’s inspiring in the prog metal world at the moment, reporting on prog metal is still important and as I’m still not entirely convinced by the genre and still a novice, ProgBlog now has a dedicated specialist, Stefano Amadei, to write about developments in the world of prog metal